Arkansas adds to the growing number of states closing school buildings for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic school year due to coronavirus concerns. On Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the closure during his daily briefing.

Arkansas adds to the growing number of states closing school buildings for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic school year due to coronavirus concerns. On Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the closure during his daily briefing.

“I want to applaud our teachers and students for hanging in there and not giving up on this school year, but recognizing education has to continue even during this time of a virus,” said Hutchinson. “So, I applaud them. But, based upon the public health concerns as Dr. Smith continues to express and in working with secretary Key, I’m announcing today that the remainder of this school year is going to be closed.”

Last month, Gov. Hutchinson announced in a press conference he would extend the closure of school districts until April 17 after his initial statement saying schools would reopen after Spring Break.

“We’re not going to allow in-school instruction, but we’ll continue with the Alternative Methods of Instruction through the remainder of this school year,” Hutchinson said. “So, for the remainder of this school year there will not be in-school instruction. I know this is a hardship, but I think the teachers, parents and everyone is prepared for this.”

Millions of students remain out of the classrooms as school districts across the country have closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The unprecedented move by state and local officials has essentially changed the way teachers educate students in K-12 not to mention higher education.

According to Education Week, at least 124, 000 public and private schools in the United States have been affected and at least 55 million students impacted with more than 479,000 right here in Arkansas based on data from the Arkansas Department of Education Center. Division of Elementary and Secondary Education commissioner Johnny Key urges everyone to practice patience during this time.

“Our schools and educators should set reasonable expectations for time on tasks when developing their AMI plans,” Key said. “It is impractical to try to replicate the school experience when children are at home. So, we need to help parents and students by establishing flexible schedules for learning that consider that they may need access to learning support outside of the typical eight to three school day schedule.”

When schools in Jefferson County temporarily closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Mandy Tidwell found another way to reach students--- virtual learning. Tidwell, a librarian at Coleman Intermediate School in Watson Chapel, offers weekly readings via YouTube.

“Our district said we needed to make sure we were engaged and a fellow librarian posted a YouTube video of an author reading a book,” said Tidwell. “I thought it was a great idea and decided to create a YouTube channel.”

With on-site instruction at a halt, educators have been forced to find innovative or creative ways to keep students engaged at home. But, Tidwell exclaims she’s up for the challenge.

“It is very important to find creative ways to reach students,” Tidwell said. “Students need to be engaged with things other than video games. Teachers must engage with students in order to teach [and] not all students have parents at home to help them with school work.”

Tidwell reads a book with her daughters, Lani or Matti, everyday except on Sundays. In addition, she chooses books that her students enjoy such as “Prince Fly Guy” by Tedd Arnold and has gained 20 subscribers to her YouTube channel so far.

“I love being able to share this journey with everyone,” she said. “I like that I can share a book with everyone from any location.”

Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Jerry Guess, like others across the state, ordered teachers to administer AMI (Alternative Methods of Instruction) packets to students to complete during the shutdown. According to the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, Act 862 allows either a public school district or open-enrollment public charter school to create an AMI plan in the event a superintendent closes school for “exceptional or emergency circumstances.”

“We’re connecting through the internet with those kids who have internet [and] we’re using written packets for those kids that don’t,” said Guess. “We’ve provided 100 hotspots for staff members who did not have readily accessible internet at home. So, they can access through the hotspot.”

In understanding and focusing on the digital divide in his district, Guess says he’s working with companies to close that gap during a critical time for both teachers and students.

“We’re installing routers in 10 buses and we’re going to strategically locate those buses around the district to increase the Wi-Fi connectivity ban to allow more students that do have internet connections and that do have the equipment to access the information,” he said. “I am remarkably impressed with the quality of work and commitment on the part of our staff and it’s a difficult time. They’re making things as effective as they can.”

Shamika Weston, whose son attends Southwood Elementary School in Pine Bluff, admits it’s been a different learning experience for him to not be in a classroom.

“This is brand new for me and brand new for my husband as well trying to somewhat homeschool,” she said. The district has sent home AMI packets, but I know for my child, he needs that structure and he needs to be able to see that teacher. So, I really wish the Pine Bluff School District would resort to some sort of online classes, so that my son can actually see the teacher.”

Weston insists that her 11-year-old son who she described as gifted and talented relies heavily on the one-on-one interaction he receives from his teachers. But, he’s managing in-spite of.

“He think it’s a vacation so to speak,” said Weston of her fifth grader. “He misses school, but being at home he more or less thinks it’s free reign. But, it’s not and so we’re trying to create some sort of a structure that he can stay on task with.”

Similar to other school districts in Jefferson County, students in the Pine Bluff School District have access to AMI packets or instruction via Google Classroom--- a free platform to help teachers create, collect and grade paperless assignments--- and Zoom--- an online meeting space to connect with others via video communication.

“We completely understand that this is a challenging situation,” said Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jeremy Owoh in a press release. “We miss our scholars and wish that they were back at school. We recognize the hardship that this situation places on our parents, families and community.”

Owoh says the district’s website will be updated daily with resources for students to utilize. Last week, the district made AMI packets available on its site for students to download. The Arkansas PBS and the Division of Secondary and Elementary Education partnered to give students in grades PK-2, 3-5, and 6-8 educational content via television. The packets consist of learning guides tied to PBS educational programming, according to the Division of Secondary and Elementary Education’s website.

“We are working on a plan to disburse more Chromebooks for those who have internet capabilities and an educational need for the service,” said Owoh. “We are also working on providing internet support in various locations.”

In a district with more than 900 students, Dollarway School District Superintendent Barbara Warren stated as of Friday, that 86 percent of families had received phone calls from someone in the district. Before Spring Break, students obtained AMI packets or devices to continue learning at home.

“As soon as the Governor's Executive Order dismissed school due to COVID-19, the Dollarway School District began working to contact families to assess their needs for devices and for internet access and to personally share details and directions about the plans for continuing teaching and learning,” said Warren.

This week, Warren says more packets and devices will be distributed to students. As far as connecting more students to Wi-Fi, it’s in the works. In the meantime, she contends that her staff has been working non-stop to meet the needs of every student.

“There are several other efforts including the calls, emails and texts via our Dollarway Messenger System, district app and website to keep our families informed and equipped with educational tips and resources,” she said. “Our district phones are open and answered each day to direct calls and answer questions even though sites are closed. We know these are uncharted waters. So, we are doing everything we know, hear about, and learn to support our students and their families.”
The Commercial reached out to Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School about their education efforts for students during the pandemic, but did not receive a comment by press time.

Key says Arkansas AMI, the partnership between DESE and Arkansas PBS, has content-specific lessons for students to access until April 17 with the option to extend that date until May 1. For districts in need of assistance with their AMI plans past the May 1 extension, Key shares and insists resources will be available and on hand to help.

“… That gives school districts time to develop plans to move forward with their AMI in their district,” he said. “Digital learning classes will continue. These are the classes we had arranged using assistance from Virtual Arkansas and the Arkansas Public Resource Center. Those courses are high school courses and can continue throughout the remainder of the year as well.”